Spotlight: Dunkirk

Warning: minor spoilers for Dunkirk follow.

I’ve never been a big fan of war movies.  There’s only so many times I can be told that “war is hell” by watching a ragtag group of soldiers make their way through hell and back before it gets old.  This is why, despite the Oscar buzz around it, I’ve never been particularly interested in seeing “Hacksaw Ridge”.

Enter “Dunkirk”.  All of the pre-release hype surrounding the movie billed it as something totally different.

And you know what?  For once, the hype wasn’t wrong.

“Dunkirk” is about the event itself more than the people involved in it, which on its own is unique for the genre.  But the movie takes a non-linear approach as well.  The story is told from three different points of view: on land taking place over a week, on the sea taking place over a day, and in the air taking place over an hour.  This means that as we move through the movie, we see events happen from these different perspectives.  For example, at one point in the movie we watch as a couple of spitfire pilots take down a bomber that had just sunk a large warship.  From up in the air, we see people bailing out into the water, but because of our distance from it we don’t feel the full impact.  Then later, we see that same event but from the people down at sea level, which instantly makes the event far more harrowing than it was before.

This happens more than once throughout the movie.  The three points of view weave in and out of each other (for example, we see the three spitfire planes from the “air” perspective fly over the boat from the “sea” perspective).  My only gripe with this narrative style is that at first it can be a little disorienting.  The movie spells out for you at the beginning the time frames each perspective takes place over, but it still might take viewers a little bit of time before they understand what is meant by “one week”, “one day”, and “one hour”.  That, combined with the disjointed nature of the plot, might be a little off-putting to some.

I was also thrown off a little by the fact that the land segment was titled “the mole”.  I didn’t find out until after the movie, but “the mole” refers to the large concrete jetties they used to facilitate the evacuation of troops.  It’s a nice detail, but it seems inconsistent when the other segments are simply titled “the sea” and “the air”.

Despite these minor qualms though, the unique chronology of the film is what makes it so great.  It tightens the pacing, making sure that we’re never at ease or too far away from the action.  And this is underscored by the tense soundtrack, which features a low ticking noise that gets faster and louder the closer you get to something bad happening.

This non-linearity becomes an integral part of the film’s themes as well.  “Dunkirk”, at its core, is about the small victories in the face of a massive failure.  Historically, the battle of Dunkirk was a bitter and devastating defeat for the Allies.  They were forced to retreat all the way to the town of Dunkirk, where they were surrounded by the Germans and had to wait for rescue.  The movie captures the sense of hopelessness the event must have inspired in the Allied soldiers.  And the non-linear style of it allows us to see the struggles from land, sea, and air, which gives us a compelling overview of the entire event instead of focusing on a small group of people within the event itself.

The movie does give us key characters to observe all the happenings through, but in the end it is about the Dunkirk battle itself.  And even though we feel a sense of triumph by the end, it is tempered by the knowledge that this was a bitter defeat for the Allied forces.  The movie culminates with a reading of the famous “we shall fight on the beaches” speech by Winston Churchill, but the rousing words are at one point superimposed over a shot of empty infantry helmets lying on the beaches, reminding us of the toll Dunkirk took.

In many ways, “Dunkirk” succeeds.  It succeeds at being a non-linear narrative.  It succeeds at being a tense and thrilling movie.  It succeeds at giving us an in-depth look at a historical event that is likely not well-known in popular culture.

But most of all, it succeeds at reminding us that “war is hell” in its own unique way.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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The Score: Music’s Impact on an Audience

Some years ago when I was still in college I took an online film studies class.  One of the books I read for that class had an interesting little aside about music in movies.  Apparently some in the indie community feel that music in mainstream movies is too manipulative and artificial.  They feel that it basically tricks the audience into feeling an emotion instead of letting the rest of the movie do that for them.

I suppose in a way they do have a point.  Music is definitely crafted to get people feeling a certain way, especially when it comes to movies or television shows.  Have you ever been watching a TV show where the music becomes subdued and faint?  Chances are you’re watching a horror show or at least a scene where the intent was to instill tension and suspense in the viewer.  These soundtracks are definitely meant to evoke certain emotions at certain times.  But I wouldn’t really call it manipulative.  That just makes you sound like a bitter and cynical person who enjoys sucking the fun out of things for everyone.

Let’s use the movie Gravity as an example.  The soundtrack to Gravity was strange, unique, and to some, annoying.  But it served a very important purpose.  The music uses a lot of distorted horns and other strange noises to help give you the sense of motion and objects impacting each other, because in space there is pretty much no sound.  Without the musical score, the movie would feel a lot different.  It would probably feel a lot more distant than it does.  As it stands, the music helps pull you in and helps you grasp the dire nature of the situation the characters are in.  Space is not always a beautiful place.  It is also terrifying, vast, and very cold.

Check the piece below for an example of what I mean.  This song is from the beginning of the movie, when the first wave of debris comes through (hey the song is called “debris” as well, how about that).  You can actually hear the moment in the music when Sandra Bullock’s character detaches from her harness (about two minutes, fifty-eight seconds).

 

 

Interstellar, another science fiction space movie, has a soundtrack that manages to carve its own path as well.  I’ve heard that Hans Zimmer actually didn’t score the movie in the traditional way.  Usually, from what I know, they would play movie scenes in front of the composer and the composer would craft music based on what he had seen.  For Interstellar, Hans Zimmer was basically given a list of the themes and told that Christopher Nolan wanted “something different”.  The main thing I really enjoyed about the movie’s score was the use of organs, especially during the docking scene (if you’ve watched the movie, you’ll know what I mean).  But I also appreciated the ties into the themes of the movie.

The piece below comes from a scene about midway or so through the movie.  The main characters have traveled to a distant galaxy and have landed on an alien planet searching for a team of people who came many years before them.  But there’s a hitch with this particular planet.  A massive black hole sits nearby, close enough to affect the planet with its intense gravity.  This means that while they’re down on the planet, time moves much slower than them, and actually years pass back on Earth before they manage to leave.  So they land on this water covered planet and begin searching for signs of the other team.  All the while, this little score is in the background, building up tension until you-know-what hits the fan.

Of particular note here is a strange little noise that sounds like an otherworldly ticking clock.  It chimes in every couple of seconds in a very rhythmic pattern, underscoring the fact that the seconds they spend on this planet are far longer for the people back on Earth.  It’s a very neat tie-in to one of the main themes of the movie.  Give it a listen.

 

 

It’s very effective at generating tension for that scene, because you know something’s about to go down.  You can actually feel it as you listen.  Not only does the ticking remind you of the subjective nature of time, but it gives you the sense that it’s counting down, that when the invisible clock hits zero something will happen, something big.  I won’t spoil the scene for you if you haven’t seen the movie, but I will say this: it certainly does a great job with hammering home a sense of scale.

But let’s move on to a different tack.  The examples I’ve shown you thus far are very much dependent on the fact that they want to raise your hackles, to make your skin break out in goosebumps.  The next example goes for a different kind of mood.

Sometimes, the musical score just wants you to drift away or zone out.  This is especially true in video games.  Many video games rely on pieces of music looped over and over again, music that is designed without a coherent sense of beginning or end.  These pieces are meant to immerse you in a different way than normal.  They want you to lose yourself in the game, to fade out the world around you until there is nothing but the game.

Many adventure-type video games use this kind of music, and one of the more effective scores I’ve seen was the one for Myst.  I’ve talked a lot about this game in the past, but I only briefly touched on the music.  The score in this game is meant to be strange and ethereal sounding.  I’ve sure someone with an ear trained for music could pick up on some of the instruments they use in the soundtrack, but a lot of it sounds downright otherworldly, which is of course the point.

The particular piece I want to point out from this game plays while you are in the tower on the game’s main island.  It carries the weight of mystery, with a strange, hollow chime sounding in the background during the entire piece.  It’s almost like the music itself is echoing off the metal walls as you explore the tower’s interior.  Take a listen.

 

 

It sounds a little spooky, doesn’t it?  It surrounds you with the hint of mystery as you try to work out the tower’s purpose.  It’s a very well-done piece of music, and definitely sells the atmosphere of the game.  I actually consider it to be one of my more favorite game soundtracks, because it sounds so unlike anything else.  With most games you have a fairly typical array of battle music for fighting, quiet music for sneaking around, dissonant music for tense moments, things like that.  Myst has a feel to it that I feel no other game has touched.  It’s just one of the many reason I consider it to be one of my favorite video games of all time.

Music makes us feel.  Does it do that by manipulating our brains?  Technically yes, but “manipulate” is such a pessimistic sounding word for it.  Music evokes.  Music touches.  Music creates memories that can last a lifetime.  Music is just one of the many art forms human beings use to express themselves, and when combined with other forms of expression it can become truly mesmerizing.  Not everyone will be affected in the same way by the same piece of music, but everyone feels something when they hear a musical score.  Sadness, anger, happiness, all emotions that can be stirred up by something as simple as the stroke of a guitar.

In many ways, music is pure emotion.

 

Well that’s all I’ve got for you this time.  Thanks for reading, and have yourselves a wonderful week!